The axing of four-fifths of the funding to night schools in 2009 made little sense. The saving was just $54 million, a drop in the tertiary education bucket. The then Education Minister, Anne Tolley, made much of taxpayers not being liable for the funding of hobby and recreational courses such as Moroccan cooking and twilight golf. The subsequent outcry, however, made it clear that many people valued adult education, and that it served a social and economic purpose which was easy to underestimate. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the Labour Party has promised to restore the funding for night classes.
Its policy is welcome. For every retired person who had been studying the type of subject cited by the minister, there was someone learning a potentially employable skill in a short and sharp course. Better still, they were learning this at a school that was otherwise unused at night, and from tutors who were practical and hands-on. For that reason, and notwithstanding the dubious nature of some of the courses, the saving extracted by the Government seemed hardly worthwhile.
Its cuts resulted in the number of schools offering a wide array of courses falling from 212 to 23. What remains are largely English language and literacy and numeracy courses, for which the Government wisely retained funding. Labour says it will reinvigorate adult and community education by doubling the current funding. That will involve $13 million in the first two years and a further $9 million in following years. If that money is used mainly for courses that are occupationally useful, rather than serving the whims of superannuitants, it will be well spent.
David Cunliffe's announcement represented Labour finally dipping a more positive toe into education policy. Until now, its approach has been based mainly on relentless condemnation of steps taken by the Government, notably in the introduction of National Standards and charter schools. It has contended that, "rather than importing failed ideas from overseas like National does, we will work together with our best and brightest here at home to improve the quality of teaching in our classrooms". If so, the fruits of that collaboration are not yet apparent. Indeed, Labour faces an immediate problem in the shape of the Government's flagship Investing in Educational Success initiative, another imported policy.
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This introduces four new teaching position tiers - executive principals, change principals, expert teachers and lead teachers - each of whom will be tasked with improving pupil achievement and each of whom will be paid well for their efforts. Details of this new career structure are being advanced, and have attracted the support of the Post Primary Teachers Association. But the primary teachers' union, the New Zealand Educational Institute, has, disappointingly, resorted to type, saying it is not impressed by a one-size-fits-all proposal.
Labour's initial response was to state that it had developed its own scheme for financial incentives for good teachers, and would consider whether to adopt some of the Government's system.
Nothing more has been heard of this. It should have been. If it does not have a meaningful alternative, Labour should be unequivocally backing an initiative that will go some way to reversing the slide in New Zealand's international education ranking.
Indeed, in areas as significant as education and health, it is important that it puts policies to the voters as soon as possible. Restoring community education should be but a small part of an approach that, most importantly, introduces an array of new ideas to lift pupil achievement. Given its current standing in polls, Labour cannot afford to dally.